With the development of modern computers and networks, assistive technologies (AT) for people with disabilities have changed a lot. Not only can one control the devices through the voice, indeed, most of the devices and appliances can be connected to the voice activation services. So one can change the TV channels and switch the lights.
Nonetheless, most of the AT are dependent upon some kind of physical movement or feedback. But how about controlling everything around just with thoughts? Just imagine a computer, music system, wheelchair, all being controlled by just thoughts. That may seem a fantasy, but very few people know that science has already done a lot of research in this direction. In fact, in laboratory conditions, this technology has already shown a huge success.
It is surely the technology of the future, as devices and gadgets that are controlled by mere thoughts can help people even with an advanced disability to be independent.
Introducing brain-computer interfacing
When a person thinks about something, let us say about moving hands or legs, or blinking an eye, all these thoughts create a different electric pattern in your brain. These various electric patterns can even be detected on the skin of your scalp. This is done with the help of the special cap-like device, having several electrodes attached to it called electroencephalogram (EEG). Once these electric patterns have been detected by the EEG, then they can be translated to various commands by the computer. This is called EEG-based brain-computer interfacing (BCI).
EEG-based BCI technology has already started to get matured enough to jump out of the laboratories and start helping people with disabilities in the real life. Thus BCI can be used to create brain-controlled wheelchairs, computer games, music systems, keyboards, and other equipment. This technology, when combined with assistive technologies (AT), can completely transform the lives of disabled individuals.
Combination of BCI and AT can help disabled people to communicate and control, have freedom of movement, and this technology can also be used for entertainment.
In fact, many experimental laboratories have already demonstrated brain-controlled robots, wheelchairs, prosthetic devices, and computer input devices (like keyboards) as a proof of the concept.
BCI offers the more natural way of interaction with the outside world as compared to any other technology, thus it can be quite helpful for disabled individuals. Moreover, most BCIs are non-invasive technologies, as brain activity is recorded just from electrodes placed on the scalp, this means that once refined, it will become easily accessible for a larger number of people.
Making BCI better
To ensure that devices and equipment using BCI work smoothly and easily, many factors are being considered.
One thing that is being considered is to create a hybrid BCI. That is BCI integrated with other technologies. For example, integrating this technology with the wheelchair that is controlled with a joystick, thus having both the options. If the wheelchair does not move in an intended way with thoughts, one can use a joystick. Or one can even use a combination of BCI and other biosignals like electromyography (sensor attached to some particular muscle). With each technology assisting other for better control or one can use the preferred channel for controlling things.
Using hybrid systems can also be helpful in the learning phase until a person picks up the skills to fully control the gadget by brain power.
BCI will be powered by the artificial intelligence, this means that these systems would be adaptive. A signal received through EEG would differ in individuals or they may even change over the time, these intelligent systems would be better at interpreting the signals of thoughts.
Integration of BCI and computing power means that gadgets or equipment being controlled can have a certain degree of autonomy. Thus if a wheelchair encounters some obstruction in the environment, it can independently decide the right direction or path, hence, riding wheelchair would be more like a horse riding.The degree of autonomy would make many tasks easier to perform.
Another important functionality that would be inbuilt is the ability of BCI gadgets to sense the mental state of a person. Thus if a robotic wheelchair senses that a person is tired and sleepy, it may automatically take control of the wheelchair and move towards the base station (user’s bed).
Some of the most common applications of BCI would be communication and control, assisted movement, and entertainment.
Communication and Control
By communication, we mean the ability to chat, receive voice calls, send and receive emails, and web surfing. In fact, during the last decades, many such computer systems have already been developed. The good thing about these systems is that they can be used even by the severely disabled individuals. In some cases, one can use brain signal just to control the computer's cursor.
Some companies have already developed devices that enable a person to type by using only thoughts. Some of these systems can type at the speed of up to 7-8 characters a minute. This may sound slow, but they give an opportunity to communicate to those who cannot even utter a word.
The normal computer interface is not well suited for people with high level of disabilities. Thus the operating system used on the PC or MAC is very difficult to modify as per the needs of the disabled people or for use with BCI. Many companies are trying to develop operating systems and applications that are a better fit for disabled people, simple to use, and easy to integrate with BCI. One such product is “QualiWorld”. Though these systems or applications are still in early stages of development and slow to use.
Many companies have already developed a prosthesis that can be controlled with the thoughts. Though they do require some days of training to use.
But perhaps most practical of solutions is the brain controlled wheelchair, as many individuals suffering from muscular dystrophies or other disabilities like spinal injury are dependent on a wheelchair for their movement. Many labs have already developed wheelchairs that can automatically move with minimum control, they can identify the various obstacles.
Some companies are experimenting with robots equipped with cameras and sensors that are remote controlled. Idea is that these robots can represent the person in family or friendly gathering. While person located in his or her house can control the behavior of robot, can get live video and thus even interact with people through robot (yes, something like film “Avatar”). This is not a distant dream, in fact, crude versions of such platforms are already existing.
BCI for Entertainment
This area may not seem that important as other functional activities, but it is vital for the psychological health of a disabled person. Thus BCI would help a disabled person to play games, watch movies, see a collection of photographs, listen to the music.
This would also help the caregiver in understanding the mood of the person. It will help disabled people to express their emotions in a better way as compared to simple textual communication.
Further, BCI could be integrated with virtual reality. It is not only for entertainment. It will help the disabled people to learn skills. Thus a disabled person can learn to control the wheelchair with thoughts in the virtual world, or pic objects with an artificial hand.
Hence BCI opens up a number of new capabilities and opportunities. As the technology improves, these systems are going to get better, and soon they may come out of the laboratories. It is just a matter of time before disabled people would be able to control things with their thoughts like abled people do.
1. Millán J d. R, Rupp R, Müller-Putz GR, Murray-Smith R, Giugliemma C, Tangermann M, et al. Combining Brain-Computer Interfaces and Assistive Technologies: State-of-the-Art and Challenges. Front Neurosci. 2010 Sep 7 [cited 2017 Sep 18];4. Available from: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2944670/
2. Lotte F, Bougrain L, Clerc M, Webster JG. Electroencephalography (EEG)-Based Brain-Computer Interfaces. In: Wiley Encyclopedia of Electrical and Electronics Engineering. John Wiley & Sons, Inc.; 1999 [cited 2017 Sep 20]. Available from: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/047134608X.W8278/abstract